Ordinary inkjet printers can be converted into 3D printers that layer material, usually plastic or metal, to build up a 3D object from a blueprint. 3D printers were born in the 80s, but the last couple of years have seen huge improvements in available technology and there has been a 3D printing boom. Now you can 3D print almost anything: jewellery, construction materials, slightly creepy face masks, even food.
3D printers can also produce biological implants custom made to fit perfectly into your body. A titanium cheekbone, jaw and pelvis have all been successfully implanted into adult patients, and a plastic trachea has replaced a baby’s defective windpipe.
Once we develop new flexible materials that synergise well with our bodies – using ingredients like the squid protein reflectin – these implants will become even better. Especially if they are made to break down over time and be replaced with our own tissues.
3D printing becomes a whole other level of cool when you start to directly print living tissues. This is being done right now by several scientists. They start with a gel matrix, then the 3D printer lays down living cells into this matrix. This can be done in multiple subsequent layers to build up an organ.
At the moment this is still very much in the trial stage. But pretty soon these tailor made organs will replace organ transplants and metal implants. Tissues and organs specifically designed for each person will fit perfectly and will be less likely to be rejected. So it will actually be cheaper in the long run than current treatment options.
3D printed organs, albeit made from powder not living cells, are already being used in an Australian medical school to teach students human anatomy.